A man, Alone
(Single Japanese Man)
The subject of this story happens to be a Japanese man who takes the dark, anonymous journey to an isolated industrial complex in Thailand in order to start a new job. However, it is not specific to any particular country or culture. It could apply to any man or woman anywhere who is trapped in the de-humanising world of twenty-first century work, in which they become a number in a data file, a chip in a security badge and a mobile commodity to be hired as cheaply as possible.
‘This is your room, Mr Abe,’ said the smiling young woman in a green uniform, as she opened the door and handed him the plastic card which served as his key. ‘Welcome to Power Engineering. Welcome to Thailand’.
She was unusually tall for a Japanese woman, even in her flat shoes, and in trying not to look down at Abe, she appeared to be addressing the top of his head.
‘I will leave you to settle in,’ she continued. ‘There are three of us at reception, so just call if you need anything.’
‘It’s a very small room,’ commented Abe, weary after a ten-hour journey involving a long delay for a change of plane.
‘But very comfortable. You have all you need: bathroom, soft bed, TV. Breakfast will be in the restaurant between six and eight tomorrow morning. It’s self-service. You go through the red door and across the lawn. This is your badge to get into the building.’
‘There’s no window.’
‘No, but extractor fan…’ She giggled and put her hand over her mouth.
‘I suppose there’s no choice,’ mused Abe, certain that there wasn’t.
‘I’m afraid not.’ She looked at her tablet. ‘You have Room Number sixteen, Corridor one. This is a room for a single Japanese man.’
Kondo Abe was indeed a single Japanese man. In his spectacles and dark suit, and with neatly combed jet black hair, he was unremarkable in appearance. He had put on a few kilos in recent years but was by no stretch of the imagination overweight. He had been married once but he and his wife had divorced some years before, not long after he had been made redundant from his well-paid job with a major electronics firm. He was an experienced accountant and this kind of work was increasingly being outsourced, often abroad. It had taken him a long time to find a new post which came close to matching his qualifications and he had been forced to accept a position with an engineering firm at barely half his former salary. In a bitterly ironic twist, it involved moving to Thailand, where his first task would be to oversee the outsourcing of the company’s accounts department. And so, at forty-two, Kondo Abe, on a mission to subject some of his own countrymen to the same fate which had befallen him, found himself unpacking his suitcase on a Sunday evening in the company’s quarters near to Lop Buri, about a hundred and fifty kilometres north of Bangkok.
He knew nothing of Thailand and had seen nothing so far. He had only ever been outside Japan once, spending a week in Hawaii on his honeymoon some years before. His plane had finally landed at Bangkok at seven-thirty that evening, when it was already dark, and he had been driven to the company in a minibus, along with a dozen other employees, arriving at just after ten o’clock. He had exchanged a few words with a younger man sitting next to him but felt too tired to strike up a proper conversation. At one point, another man, with an irritating grin and discoloured front teeth, turned round and gave him a card with the address of the ‘Bun-Bun Club’ on it.
‘You new?’ he said. ‘Try this one. Only five minutes in taxi. Nice girls, very cheap.’ He had then made an obscene gesture and launched into a bout of hysterical laughter.
He stopped very quickly. No one else was laughing. After checking their phones for messages, they all seemed too exhausted to care, about the Bun-Bun Club or anything else, as they travelled through the night. There was nothing to look at outside, except a few lights in passing towns and villages. A certain world-weariness seemed to have gripped everyone. By the time the minibus reached its destination almost all the passengers had fallen asleep.
It was April and the night was warm and humid as they got off the bus. There was no sense of freshness about the air but its tropical mustiness was strangely pleasant after hours spent in taxis, planes, airports and the minibus. As they entered the sleeping quarters they shivered in the polar air-conditioning.
‘Can’t I turn it down?’ Kondo Abe had asked the hostess.
‘I find it very comfortable,’ she replied, not answering his question, which made him think that she had grown up in the far North of Hokkaido.
Kondo Abe looked at his room. It was not really a room, more like a glorified shoe box with a tiny WC and bath squashed into one corner, while in another there was a single bed, which, despite the promise of being ‘soft’, had only marginally more give than a slab of concrete. An incongruous outsize TV was suspended from the wall. Apart from a strange angular piece of furniture which was supposed to be a cupboard, and a reading lamp, that was about it. In fact, because his room was at the end of the building, there was a small window in the bathroom, as well as the extractor fan promised by the giggling hostess.
‘I could be anywhere,’ he thought, ‘or I could be nowhere.’
Before his divorce, he and his wife had lived in what was, by Tokyo standards, a comfortable apartment. Now he found himself thousands of miles from home in what resembled an open prison. It quickly became apparent that his white-collar status would give him no privileges; the other rooms were full of men in overalls who were obviously from the production side. All single Japanese men. While getting ready for bed, he noticed the open door of the room opposite and said ‘Konbanwa’ to a man of about his age with a grease-stained shirt who was reading a magazine. The man replied with a grunt and shut his door.
A few minutes later, Kondo Abe sat on the bed in his pyjamas and thought of Japan, his ageing parents and his ten-year old son. At that moment, he wanted to cry, but tiredness got the better of him and, putting on an extra blanket to keep out the chill, he sank into a deep sleep.
He awoke feeling refreshed. He knew that it was morning because some of the daylight had filtered through the bathroom window and passed through the open door into the room. He reached for his watch, which he had left next to the bed. The time was just before seven o’clock, the time for which he had set the alarm on his phone. Good, he thought, plenty of time for a shower before breakfast. He was due to report to the Managing Director at half-past eight, which would just give him time to get ready and read some papers over again.
By half-past seven he was ready to go. He had put on his suit and crisp white shirt but had decided to leave his tie behind while he went to have breakfast. He left his room and, as instructed, went through the red door and across the lawn. In daylight he was able to appreciate the scale of the company’s operations. In addition to the sleeping quarters and the restaurant, which stretched the length of the grassy area on both sides, there was an enormous factory building to his right, while on the left there was a research laboratory and an administrative building on four floors. He could also see a gym and what seemed to be a leisure complex next to it. Comfortable in the outdoor morning heat, he stopped for a few moments to take everything in. The whole area was tastefully landscaped with trees and a number of ponds. There was even a small lake near to the factory. It suddenly occurred to him that there was only one thing missing: people. There was not a soul to be seen.
He walked across the lawn to the door of the restaurant and swiped his badge to enter. He expected the place to be packed at this time of the morning but there was no one there. Not only that, all the chairs were neatly piled up on top of the tables, as they would have been the night before. There was no sign of any staff, no sound of voices and no smell of any food being prepared. In short, the place was empty. But it was Monday morning, the beginning of a working day. Kondo Abe thought that he must have made a mistake and got up far too early, and yet it was daylight and the sun had risen some time ago. What was going on?
He went back to the building where his room was. As he walked along the corridor, he noticed that all the rooms were open but there was no one inside. In room after room, all the beds were neatly made and everywhere was spotless; there was no sign that anyone had been there at all. He noticed that the atmosphere was warm and clammy; the air-conditioning had stopped. He headed to the reception. There was nobody there, not a soul.
‘Hello!’ he shouted as he returned to his room. ‘Is anyone here?’ He felt a sudden sense of helplessness, combined with a feeling of being ridiculous. Perhaps he had just misunderstood. Maybe everyone from production left early to go to the factory and the restaurant had just closed early today, or never opened at all. There may be some impromptu company meeting, or a practice fire drill for which they had not wanted to wake him after his long journey yesterday. In short, there could be hundreds of reasons why there was no one around.
He went out and made his way to the administrative building, where his eight-thirty appointment was due. It took him about five minutes to walk there. The rays of the morning sun were heating up the air; the temperature was already near to thirty degrees. The building was made of clear glass and as he approached he could see rows of desks on every floor. All of them were empty.
Arriving at the foyer, he could see a large reception area, with white armchairs for visitors to wait in. There were several vending machines, with coffee and snacks, but once again there was no sign of life. He was not sure whether his badge would work here but the front entrance opened when he swiped it and he went in. The place was really a large atrium: very open plan with transparent lifts.
‘Hello!’ yelled Kondo Abe, several times, not really expecting a response.
He took one of the lifts to the top floor and looked down at the building from over a balcony.
Making his way along a corridor to his right, he sensed that he was in the area where the senior management had their offices, as the décor was darker and more ornate than the bright, functional style which seemed to prevail elsewhere. As he passed each office, he opened the doors and found them all empty, although it was now well past eight o’clock. Finally, at the very end of the corridor, he came to an office marked ‘Managing Director’. This was where he had his appointment.
He entered the office. It had a large desk and a meeting table, made out of mahogany. On the wood-panelled walls were several portraits of Mount Fuji and a large black and white photograph of Marlene Dietrich smoking a cigarette. Through a connecting door was a secretary’s office, in which he could see a desk with a computer and a pile of neatly-folded papers.
‘You are early for your appointment, Mr. Abe,’ said a voice from behind Kondo’s back. The environment of an empty office building was disturbing enough, but the sudden sound of a human voice in this context was positively terrifying. He felt his blood chill as he turned round. He was confronted with a white-haired man of about sixty, carrying a cup of coffee from one of the vending machines. Kondo presumed that this stranger was the Managing Director and immediately noticed that, rather than a normal business suit, he was wearing a yukata, or dressing gown. The man made his way, unsteadily, towards his desk, passing Kondo on his left-hand side and turning towards him as he pulled back his chair.
‘Now let me see,’ he said, in a crackly voice. ‘We must keep going, Mr. Abe. We must maintain our dignity, our values, our..….’
Kondo sensed that something was not right. As the Managing Director was about to take the last step into his chair, he stopped and remained rooted to the spot for several seconds, looking downwards. He then fell backwards onto the floor, as stiffly as a plank of wood. Kondo’s natural instinct in such a situation was to try to help and to offer first aid, so he went over and knelt down to see what he could do. However, in that instant, something inside made him stand up and refuse to offer any assistance. He could not explain his decision not to intervene; he just knew that this was the way it had to be. As Kondo stood over him, the Managing Director was gasping for breath and holding his chest.
‘Abe, Abe! You must help me,’ he spluttered. He looked Kondo straight in the eye as he pointed towards the door of his office.
‘You..must..help..get..p..p..pills…’. His voice tailed off and he was unable to get any more words out, although he continued to wave his arms about, like a shipwrecked sailor trying to get attention. Kondo looked downwards, stepped away from him and stood back against the wall for a couple of minutes. He felt no obligation to act as the stricken man writhed on the floor. He did not want look at him. Gradually all went quiet and, when the Managing Director had become still, he went over to him and could see that his eyes were open and that his face had turned pale, as though all the blood had drained out of him. It was obvious he was dead.
Kondo noticed that the body was lying awkwardly on the floor and was not quite flat. He tried to move it gently and it was at that point that he saw the small paper knife with a black and white handle sticking out of the Managing Director’s back, which was soaked in blood. Kondo realised that some of the blood had stained the cuffs of his white shirt and that the left arm of his jacket was damp.
In a confused state, he gave up trying to shift the corpse and sat down in the plush leather office chair. Murder, he thought, but how? There was nobody here.
‘Except me,’ he said loudly. ‘But I didn’t do it. Why should I? I don’t know this man.’
Kondo got to his feet and repeated his words, looking into the mirror on the wall opposite.
‘I don’t this man,’ he said again. He realised that he did not look or sound convincing, even to himself.
He turned and looked at the lifeless body on the carpet. He continued to feel nothing. Although he had always thought of himself as a caring, compassionate individual, he knew that he had treated a fellow human being in mortal distress as if he were an inanimate object. Maybe he would not have saved him, but he did not even try to. And yet, perplexingly, he had no sense of guilt, none at all. All his behavioural parameters seemed to have been taken away; it was as though he was floating in a zone of moral weightlessness, in which his normal concern for others had been suspended.
Although he felt nothing, Kondo Abe’s sense of duty told him that he had to do something. He would have to report the crime. He had no choice. At that moment he became intrigued by an open door across the corridor, through which he could see a bed. He got up and entered what turned out to be a small flat, complete with its own bathroom, wardrobes and writing desk. A clean three-piece suit was hanging above the bed and there was a huge bunch of flowers in a vase. Apart from that, the place was not much an improvement on his own shoe box. He guessed that this was the Managing Director’s private accommodation for those days when he chose to stay on the premises. There were no signs of blood on the bed or anywhere else but it seemed safe to assume that he had come out of here and into his office, where Kondo had encountered him.
Kondo went back to the office and picked up the phone on his desk. There was a dialling tone, which was encouraging. He began phoning all the numbers on a list he had found in the secretary’s office: for security, the production works, the laboratory and many other places. Each time there was a ringtone but no reply. He called the number listed for the police and the ambulance service, with the same result. He tried to send messages on his phone, but there was no internet connection. By now, he was at his wits’ end. What had happened to everyone? Was he the last man left on earth?
Without taking a further look at the body on the floor, Kondo left the office and ran downstairs and out of the administrative block. First he went back to the sleeping quarters and the restaurant. Then, perspiring in the increasing heat, he ran to the factory and then to the research laboratory. All the time he was shouting and screaming for help. Finally, he reached the perimeter of the company’s premises and made his way to the entrance. The gates were still open and security guards were nowhere to be seen. Kondo began checking all the company vehicles parked nearby, hoping to find one which was not locked. Eventually he came across a large van with its windows open and, after clambering in, he noticed a bunch of keys lying on the floor. With a sense of relief that he had never experienced before, he was able to start the engine and to drive out of the complex. Thank goodness, he thought, now he would be able to make contact with civilisation again.
It took only a few minutes for his hopes to be dashed. As he drove along a long, open road in the direction of Lop Buri, he spied a small group of buildings on his right. There were some shops and market stalls, a garage, a few houses, a small apartment block and, as he had been promised, the Bun-Bun Club. But, as on the company’s premises, there was no one there. The whole place was deserted. Some of the stalls had what appeared to be fresh food on them.
‘That’s it!’ he said to himself. ‘This area must have been evacuated. Perhaps there is going to be an earthquake, or a hurricane.’ Then he came to his senses. Why had no one told him? And who had killed the Managing Director?
The pumps at the garage were working and he was able to fill up. He pressed on, going through a village and then into the main town, stopping on several occasions. Each time he shouted at the top of his voice and ran into every empty building. There were no signs of life, animal or human; not only were there no people, there were no dogs, cats, monkeys or even birds. The awful silence was overwhelming. It was as though some sort of plague had wiped out everything in its path and taken all the bodies with it.
In desperation, he drove towards the main highway to Bangkok. He had travelled on it the previous night in the minibus and even in his sleepy nocturnal state he remembered that it was teeming with traffic. There must be cars, buses or trucks going somewhere, he thought.
It was half-past eleven when he reached the highway. He parked on a bridge which passed over it and opened the door. Even before he stepped down from the cab, he realised that all was quiet. There was no sign of even one vehicle; the only noise was the rustling of pieces of litter being blown by the gentle, roasting wind. He waited for two hours and the wide dual carriageway remained empty.
‘Where is everybody?’ yelled Kondo. Leaning against the van, he began to cry. Tears ran down his bloodstained white shirt and he began to punch the side of the vehicle in frustration, following this up by banging his head against the side door several times. It was as though the whole situation was an enormous practical joke played on him by the rest of the world, whose representatives were even now cackling away in a control box somewhere. Leaning over the bridge, he cried out at the top of his voice,
‘What have you all forsaken me, you bastards? Bastards! Bastards! The whole bloody world is a bastard!’
It was at that moment he heard a noise from his phone. It wasn’t ringing, but it was making a noise, which was becoming more insistent.
Suddenly, he found himself lying on the floor, looking at the sky. Only the sky had become a ceiling and the afternoon heat was being cooled by an icy-blast on his face. As he tried to get up, he felt the mattress of the bed beneath him, as well as the blanket which covered his face. He became aware of a cold sweat sticking to his back. The bright light had faded to semi-darkness and only a glimmer of daylight was creeping through the bathroom window. The noise from the phone became recognisable as an alarm. Looking down, he saw the device flashing with the figures ‘7.00’. It was Monday morning. He had finally woken up. It had all been a bad dream.
As he got out of bed, Kondo Abe felt like a new man. He was like someone who had had a close brush with death and, having survived, was beginning to appreciate everything that life had to offer, as if he was experiencing it for the first time. He could not remember many details of his dream but for a few minutes the thought of it still made him shiver. Once he got into the steaming hot shower, however, he began to think of other, more pleasant, things.
‘This is going to be a good day,’ he said, loudly, as he dried himself and began to get dressed. ‘This is a new start for you, Abe.’ It was as though all those demons from the past, all those setbacks and bad memories, had been rolled up and put into a box, which had then been locked up, weighted down and thrown into deep water.
‘I’m free!’ he exclaimed, tying his shoelaces and gathering up his phone and room key. It was half-past seven and he opened his door to go to the restaurant for breakfast.
As he did so, he came face to face with the tall hostess from reception. She was wearing the same green uniform and fixed smile from the night before.
‘Good morning, Abe-san,’ she said, glancing at her tablet. ‘Don’t forget your eight-thirty appointment with Mr Masuda, Administration Building, fourth floor.’
Suddenly, Kondo Abe’s new lease of life was over, barely thirty minutes after it had begun. When the hostess had mentioned the name Masuda, he was immediately transported back to the white-haired Managing Director of his dream, whom he had felt no compulsion to try to save from death.
‘So that’s who he was,’ he grunted to himself, making his way to the restaurant. ‘Of course. How could I not have recognised him?’ All at once, every moment of his dream came back to him and it started to make perfect sense. In fact, his presence here, at Power Engineering in Thailand, the journey from Tokyo, his application for the job and a chance meeting with a friend who had shown him the vacancy notice all now made perfect sense. And now the eight-thirty appointment made the most perfect sense of all.
Sitting down with his tray, containing rice, tea and a rather incongruous Danish pastry, he knew that all the demons of his past, along with the unsettled scores, had flown out of the box and were back with him. He tried to remain calm. He had to keep a cool head.
Kondo arrived five minutes early for his appointment. He knew the way, of course, for everything else in the Administration Building was just as he remembered it in his dream. As he approached the Managing Director’s office, he noticed that the door of the flat opposite was ajar and, behind it, he could hear someone singing. Without hesitating, he pushed open the door and spied the white-haired Masuda, sitting in his yukata at the writing desk with a newspaper and a cup of coffee, belting out his own croaky version of ‘My Way’.
‘Good morning, Mr Masuda.’
The Managing Director was caught off guard and looked offended.
‘Who are you?’ he cried, sharply, revealing a rather over-engineered set of false teeth.
‘I have an appointment. At eight-thirty. I’m a little early.’
‘Appointments are in my office,’ barked Masuda. ‘Report to my secretary and wait.’
‘I know all about your office,’ replied Kondo. ‘You have four paintings of Mount Fuji and a photo of Marlene Dietrich on the wall.’
‘What’s your name?’ demanded Masuda, getting to his feet. ‘I’ve never seen you before. When did you get here?’
‘Then how do you know about my office? It’s been locked.’
‘I know lots of things,’ said Kondo, calmly. ‘In fact, I know everything about you.’
At this, Masuda came over to confront him. He was a small man who exuded self-importance, and with his generous belly showing through his dressing gown, which was swishing around and touching the floor, plus his artificially dazzling smile, he cut a somewhat comic figure.
‘Who the damn hell are you?’ he shouted.
‘The new accountant. I was told to report to you at half-past eight. My name is Kondo Abe. Does that mean anything to you?’
‘Nothing!’ snapped Masuda. ‘There are many accountants; they’re ten a penny.’
‘The chief accountant at Shiba Electronics certainly was. You remember, in July 2009?’
Masuda stopped in his tracks and his face broke into a self-satisfied grin of recognition.
‘Abe,’ he said, prodding him in the chest. ‘Yes, I remember. We had to let you go.’
That, thought Kondo, was the understatement of the decade. Not only had Shiba Electronics, in the person of Mr Masuda, the financial director at the time, ‘let him go’, but they had sacked him in the middle of the afternoon in front of all his colleagues. Masuda had personally marched him to the door, loudly telling everyone that the company had ‘got rid of a piece of dead wood’. In the months of unemployment that followed, Kondo had begun to argue with his wife and, after one particularly heated row, she had taken herself and their young son away for good. There followed a protracted legal battle, at the end of which Kondo was only granted access to his son twice a month. For years, work consisted of temporary, often poorly paid, clerical jobs. Understandably, he was not Masuda’s biggest fan.
‘I didn’t realise that you would be here,’ said Kondo, calmly. ‘I didn’t know you had left Shiba.’
Masuda smiled, knowingly.
‘I haven’t! Shiba took over Power Engineering two years ago, and I was made MD for the Thailand operation. I’m surprised you didn’t know that; it’s all on the website. This is where most of the production is now and we want to transfer most of the administration jobs here too, including the accounts department.’
‘And I am supposed to help you. Help you put more Japanese workers on the dole, just like you did to me all those years ago.’
‘You knew that when you took the job,’ snapped Masuda. ‘It wasn’t a secret; it was made clear in the advertisement. With your record, you were lucky to be taken on. If you don’t want to do it, go away now, back to Japan. If you do, go to my office and I will introduce you to the Director of Finance.’
He moved towards the door but Kondo Abe blocked his way.
‘Aren’t you going to change,’ he asked, sarcastically.
‘I often wear this yukata for morning meetings. Anyway, it’s none of your business what I wear. Let me pass!’
But Kondo Abe was in no mood to let him pass. He had originally been grateful to finally land an accounting job which seemed at least related to his qualifications, but now he didn’t care. All he could think of was the little white-haired man in front of him who had humiliated him years before and had ruined his life. He grabbed Masuda by the shoulders and pushed him roughly on to the bed.
‘You’re insane,’ cried Masuda. ‘I’ll call security.’
‘No one will hear,’ said Kondo, who was now thinking nimbly on his feet. ‘Actually, I do want the job, Mr Masuda, but not exactly the one you offered me. I want a promotion, more money and a big office like this. And most of all, I want an apology. And if I don’t get it, I will tell everyone here what you have done. And not just to me. Do you remember Shoji Sato?’
‘Sato? I don’t know any Sato.’
‘Yes you do, Mr Masuda. He was one of my best friends and just because of that you sacked him the week after me. Nearly fifteen years at the firm and it counted for nothing. That evening, he jumped off the roof of the Paradise Department Store. You might have read about it.’
He picked up the newspaper and waved it in the Managing Director’s face.
‘Er, yes,’ replied Masuda, clearly disconcerted by his visitor’s rage. ‘Yes, very unfortunate. We sent some flowers.’
‘I bet that made you feel a lot better.’
Masuda stood up, trying to regain his authority. At that moment, Kondo Abe looked down at the writing desk, on which he saw the same black and white spotted paper knife which had been plunged into Masuda’s back during the dream. Without hesitating, he picked it up and looked towards him.
‘On the other hand,’ he declared, gleefully, ‘I might just finish the job now. You know, Mr Masuda, when I arrived here last night, I was prepared for a pretty uneventful day. Then I had a dream and after that someone mentioned your name. And now, I find this.’ He looked at the knife again. ‘It must be fate. Never mind everything else. This will do the trick.’
He took a step in the direction of Masuda, who was now terrified and back-pedalling into the corner of the room.
‘Abe!’ he screamed. ‘Don’t, please. You’ll never get away with it. We should talk. I’ll make it up to you. You can have anything you want.’
‘I don’t want to get away with it,’ replied Abe. ‘Don’t you see? You can’t “make up” for wrecking my marriage, taking away my son, leaving my friend splattered on a Tokyo pavement. This is the only way, Masuda, the only way for me to get even.’
‘Abe! Abe!’ Masuda pleaded. ‘You can’t…’
At this point his voiced suddenly dried up and his corpulent frame seemed to become rigid. A few seconds later he collapsed on the floor and held his chest. He began gasping for breath.
‘My heart!’ he croaked. ‘I need the pills. The pink ones, in the cupboard.’ He pointed to the bathroom. ‘Help me, Abe! Help me!’
Kondo Abe was momentarily suspicious, thinking it might be a trick. But he saw Masuda’s face going pale and had the feeling that he was going fast. In spite of the fact that, just a few moments earlier, he had been intent on killing this man, he meekly went to the bathroom and retrieved the pills, which he gave to the stricken Masuda with a glass of water. Masuda, sitting with his back against the wall, swallowed a couple and after a few minutes his breathing became more regular and some colour returned to his chubby face. In the meantime, Kondo had sat down, still holding the knife.
‘Thank you, Abe-san,’ said Masuda, ‘I feel much better.’ He smiled. ‘Would you like to join me for breakfast? Or do you still intend to kill me?’
‘I won’t do that,’ mumbled a crestfallen Kondo. ‘You probably knew it; so did I. Deep down. I’m not a ruthless man, not like you.’
‘You are a good man, Abe. You saved my life. I must have forgotten to take my pills this morning. Three years I’ve been taking these damned things and this was the first time that I have ever missed my dose.’ He got up and slapped Kondo on the shoulder. ‘You will do well here; I will make sure of it. I owe you a lot.’
Kondo Abe put his weapon on the desk.
‘What’s the matter with me?’ he thought to himself. ‘I had the chance of a lifetime. I could have let him die, just like I did in my dream. No one would have known; nobody could have proved anything. Why the hell did I help him? Would he have helped me?’
All of a sudden, he felt the cold steel of a blade against his throat. Masuda, feigning to open one of the drawers, had grabbed the knife. His crimson face, contrasting frighteningly with his white teeth, seemed to throb with triumph and there was a horrible glint in his eye.
‘Abe,’ he whispered, as he pinned Kondo to the desk, ‘listen to me. You are going to work for this company and you are going to work harder than you have ever done. You are going to take orders and do as you are told: today, tomorrow, next week, next year and every year after that. And if you step out of line, I will personally throw you off the premises with just the clothes you are wearing and give you such a stinking reference that you will never get another job. I have influence, you know. If you complain or make any accusations against me, I will see that you are charged with attempted murder. Now go and see my secretary and ask for the Finance Director. He will put you in a stupid little office for stupid little men. I don’t need to see you again and I don’t want to. Get out of my sight.’
With that, he pushed the dazed Kondo Abe away and pointed to the door.
That evening, Kondo Abe sat in his room watching a baseball match on TV. He had met the Finance Director, a taciturn sort who had shown him to his stupid little office. There, surrounded by stupid little men like himself, he had begun his stupid little job. He was resigned to doing this job for years to come, possibly for life, unless or until the company found someone cheaper and got rid of him. Perhaps it was all he deserved. Perhaps it was all anyone deserved.
He thought of the incident with Masuda that morning and all the decisions that might have changed his life. He thought of his dream.
The man across the corridor had left his door open earlier in the evening and had given Kondo a smile as well as a grunt. Maybe they would become friends. The tall hostess had knocked on his door half an hour before to ask if he had all he needed. As she left, she repeated her gesture of giggling and putting her hand over her mouth. She feels sorry for me, thought Kondo. Or it could be that she likes me. Perhaps we could get to know each other better.
In a way, he said to himself, life is not so bad. It may still have something to offer me. Yet, as he sat there, on the bed in his freezing room, in the middle of a dark alien land of which he knew nothing, he realised the full extent of what he was.
He was a single Japanese man.
Or, to put it another way: a man, alone.